How Ancient People and People Before
the Time of Oil Wells Used Petroleum.

Petroleum literally means "rock oil." It is the second most abundant liquid on Earth.1

The petroleum industry is first encountered in the archaeological record near Hit in what is now Iraq. Hit is on the banks of the Euphrates river and is the site of an oil seep known locally as The Fountains Of Pitch. There asphalt was quarried for use as mortar between building stones as early as 6000 years ago. Asphalt was also used as a waterproofing agent for baths, pottery and boats (Purdy, 1957). 2

The Babylonians caulked their ships with asphalt.3 In Mesopotamia around 4000 B.C., bitumen - a tarry crude - was used as caulking for ships, a setting for jewels and mosaics, and an adhesive to secure weapon handles. Egyptians used it for embalming, and the walls of Babylon and the famed pyramids were held together with it.4

Yokuts knife and arrows made . . .
by using chunks of very hard, dry asphaltum. Softer alphaltum . . . would melt from the hot valley sun and the body heat of the hunter, gluing the arrows or foreshafts together.9
Oil that had seeped to the surface would mostly evaporate and leave behind bitumen - the tarry component of the mixture of hydrocarbons from which it is composed. This has been used for thousands of years as a waterproofing agent, for plumbing, boat building and brick bonding. There is reference to bitumen being used as a coating for Moses' basket and Noah's Ark being 'pitched' inside and out with it.5 Natural deposits of asphalt occur in pits or lakes as residue from crude petroleum that has seeped up through fissures in the earth. In antiquity, bitumen was the Roman name for an asphalt used as a cement and mortar.6

About 2000 years ago the Chinese used oil and natural gas for heat and light. Bamboo pipes carried gas into home.2

Ancient Persians, 10th century Sumatrans and pre-Columbian Indians all believed that crude oil had medicinal benefits. Marco Polo found it used in the Caspian Sea region to treat camels for mange, and the first oil exported from Venezuela (in 1539) was intended as a gout treatment for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.4

A Maidu acorn-meal brush, resting on a stone mortar filled with acorn meal. The brush is made of soap-root fibers glued together with asphaltum and laced with string.9 Homepage of the Maidu Mechoopda Tribe
The American Indians collected oil for medicines. The American settlers found its presence in the water supplies a contamination, but they learned to collect it to use as fuel in their lamps.7

Indians near Sacramento used asphaltum to waterproof their baskets and to glue fibers of a soap-root brush to form a handle with twine. Also, hard asphaltum was used to make blades for knives and arrowheads. Their counterparts on the coast in the Mattole Valley in Northern California also harvested the sticky, dark material that made baskets airtight, secured arrowheads to wooden shafts and for some was said to have served as medicine for colds, coughs, burns and cuts.8

This twined basket was waterproofed inside and out with asphaltum.9
Native Americans traded crude oil that they obtained from oil seeps in upstate New York among other places. The Seneca tribe traded oil for so long that all crude oil was referred to as 'Seneca Oil'. Seneca Oil was supposed to have great medicinal value. It sold for $20 per quart in a time when skilled workmen were paid pennies per hour. A petroleum technology text published in 1901 states that: "It is an undisputed fact at the present time that petroleum is an excellent remedy for diphtheria" (Purdy, 1957).2 The Senecas [also] used crude oil for body paint and for ceremonial fires. 4

Until the late 19th century, an oil find often was met with disinterest or dismay. Pioneers who settled the American West dug wells to find water or brine, a source of salt; they were disappointed when they struck oil.

Several historical factors changed that. The kerosene lamp, invented in 1854, ultimately created the first large-scale demand for petroleum. (Kerosene first was made from coal, but by the late 1880s most was derived from crude oil.) In 1859, at Titusville, Penn., Col. Edwin Drake drilled the first successful well through rock and produced crude oil. What some called "Drake's Folly" was the birth of the modern petroleum industry. He sold his "black gold" for $20 a barrel.4 But that's another story!!!

1The Institute of Petroleum
2 Study Guide- Environmental Studies 200: Impacts of Human Activities on Marine Ecosystems. Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, 1995, p190-200.
3 A Petroleum Prospecting Primer
4 Chevron Community Education: What is Crude Oil?
5 The Institute of Petroleum
6"Asphalt," Microsoft(R) Encarta(R) 98 Encyclopedia. (c) 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation.
7"Petroleum," Microsoft(R) Encarta(R) 98 Encyclopedia. (c) 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation.
8Rintoul, William. Drilling Through Time: 75 years with California's Division of Oil & Gas. 1990. p1.
9Rintoul, William. Drilling Through Time: 75 years with California's Division of Oil & Gas. 1990. p2.